The Highland minister who married Madonna and Guy Ritchie and baptised their son Rocco will be the next Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Rev Susan Brown, minister of Dornoch Cathedral, will step into the 12-month role next May, succeeding Right Rev Dr Derek Browning. The 58-year-old says she is “deeply moved and honoured” to be chosen as the Church of Scotland’s ambassador for 2018-19.
Mrs Brown said: “Being Moderator will not be about what I can do, but about what God wants to do.
“I am conscious that it is both a great privilege and a great responsibility – one I can only undertake at God’s prompting.”
Rev Dr George Whyte, Principal Clerk of the Church of Scotland, welcomed Mrs Brown’s appointment.
He said: “I was delighted to hear of Susan’s nomination.
“She brings great personal qualities and a wide range of ministerial, community and family experience to the post.
“I look forward to working with her throughout the year.”
A Highlands’ perspective
Mrs Brown brings 32 years of experience as a Highlands minister to the role. Her first parish as a fully-fledged minister was at Killearnan on the Black Isle. She spent 13 years there before moving to Dornoch Cathedral.
Mrs Brown said: “Dornoch is a beautiful place to be and Dornoch people have a wonderful warmth and hospitality.
“When you’re in the far north you are much more likely to be at the heart of everything and that’s very important to me.
“In the Highlands you will find the church at the heart of the community and the community in the heart of the church.”
Until now Mrs Brown was probably best known as the minister who married Madonna and Guy Ritchie in December 2000 and baptised their son Rocco. As minister in the beautiful and historic 13th century Dornoch Cathedral, she is asked to marry around 30-40 couples every year.
Mrs Brown said: “It’s always a pleasure and an honour to ask for God’s blessing when a couple are celebrating their love.
“I see it as an opportunity to welcome people into our congregation.
“What you always hope is that the marriage will last for life.”
50 Years of Women in Ministry
Mrs Brown will take up the role of Moderator 50 years after the first woman was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.
“I’m grateful to all those who paved the way for me and other women to follow a calling to ministry,” she said.
“In my mid-teens when I first felt God was asking me to serve him through parish ministry, I had never met or even heard of a minister who was a woman.
“My mother tried to discourage me at first, telling me I was too short to be a minister, (just under 5 feet) but today at 93, she is extremely proud.”
Mrs Brown was the first woman to serve in both Ross and Sutherland Presbyteries and the first woman to be Moderator of both.
“Along the way I have been faced with some people who find it difficult to accept a woman minister, but my belief is that everyone has their own story and I just let people have their stories as I get on with my story.
“I am passionate about being a minister and I happen to be a woman.”
Called to ministry at 15
Mrs Brown grew up in Penicuik, Midlothian where her father was a miner at the Bilston Glen colliery. With her twin sister and older sister she attended Penicuik High School.
And while her mother was a Guild member, the family was “not especially religious”. However, Mrs Brown and her sisters were encouraged to attend Sunday school at Penicuik North Kirk. During her teen years when other young people stopped going to church, she persisted and she was just 15 when she felt the call to ministry. She says she still feels proud to be a parish minister.
“It’s a great privilege and also a great responsibility to be a minister,” she said.
“You see people at their most vulnerable and at their most ecstatic.
“When people come to Church to be married or to have their babies baptised, they are so joyful and it is a real pleasure to be part of their celebration.
“At the same time, just a few days ago I was sitting with a young mum who had just lost her 64-year-old father to a sudden illness.
“Her aunts and uncles were sitting with her and they were talking about him, telling stories that really showed his character.
“To be included in those family memories at such an intimate moment is a unique privilege.”
A life of service
It was at Sunday School aged 10 that she met her husband of 36 years, Derek Brown, who is chaplain at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, and lead chaplain for NHS Highland.
“He was a swot and I was more sporty,” she said.
“We married just before I graduated.
“I thought I was marrying a banker but he changed his mind and started studying for ministry.
The couple went on to have two children— Simon, 30, a novelist who has just won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award – and Hannah, 27, a social anthropology graduate.
After leaving school she earned a Bachelor’s in Divinity from New College at the University of Edinburgh followed by a post-graduate Diploma in Ministry and placements in parishes across Edinburgh. She then spent two years as a probationer at St Giles Cathedral before heading north. In addition to her parish ministry, Mrs Brown has served the Church nationally as vice-convener of the Ecumenical Affairs committee and is currently vice convener of the World Mission Council. In 2011, she also became one of the select few ministers to be appointed as a Chaplain in Ordinary to HM the Queen.
Walking alongside people
A keen outdoorswoman who walks her black labrador Finnbar every day, Mrs Brown will bring her love of getting out and about to the role of Moderator.
“My theme during the year will be walking alongside people,” she says.
“When you walk alongside people, you listen and you exchange stories.
“It gives us a chance to talk more deeply than when we are face to face.”
“Deliberately making the time to walk in our communities, praying as we go, talking with those we meet, listening to the stories of friends and strangers alike, seems to me to be following in Jesus’ footsteps.
“Your faith is supposed to be a whole body experience.
“It’s not just your head or your heart, it is every part of you.
“It’s body, mind and spirit.”
Mrs Brown said her experience comforting families who have lost loved ones to suicide confirmed her choice.
“I want to encourage people to get out more because while it can be one of the hardest things to do when you are depressed it is also very healing,” she added.
WWI Commemorations and the Year of Young People
During Mrs Brown’s year as Moderator (2018-19) she will act as the Kirk’s ambassador, visiting four Church of Scotland presbyteries, preaching at special events and meeting faith leaders and dignitaries in Scotland and abroad. She will also take part in the centenary commemorations for the First World War.
“In looking back on this milestone anniversary, we need to let the past remind us of the huge toll war exacts and we need to learn from the experience of those young men and women who paid a price beyond asking,” said Mrs Brown.
“The fact that 2018 has also been designated the Year of Young People provides a poignant reminder of the connection of the past, the present and the future.”
A love of the outdoors
Throughout her life Mrs Brown has enjoyed taking part in sports, including hockey, badminton and swimming. She was only two grades short of her black belt in Tae Kwon Do when she tore a knee ligament.
Mrs Brown said: “Now I have to be a little more sedate, so with the world’s 5th best golf course on our doorstep, the choice was obvious.
“Almost everyone in Dornoch, of all ages, plays golf – most of them far better than me.”
Mrs Brown gained international media attention when she wrote a spiritual reflection for each of the 18 holes of the Royal Dornoch course, that were included in the course guide. After she was invited to dedicate the new East Sutherland Rescue Association lifeboat, the minister volunteered to become a regular crew member, a role she filled for 10 years.
“We trained with the RNLI but our lifeboat was smaller,” said Mrs Brown.
“We did things like tow boats back in to shore after their engines cut out.
“I can’t say I was involved in any really spectacular rescues, although we did have to rescue a stranded cow once.”